Thursday 23 February 2017

South sea swagger can help Elwood's Connacht to mix it with Blues

Hugh Farrelly

ANTICIPATION is building out west ahead of the arrival of Toulouse and the Heineken Cup in a few weeks' time, but Connacht have been stressing the need to focus on the "meat and drink" of the Pro12, with Cardiff Blues providing the opposition at the Sportsground this evening (6.0).

Neither side is overly influenced by returning World Cup internationals, but there will be two on display in this match who could have a profound impact on the outcome. Tongan winger Fetu'u Vainikolo makes his Connacht debut on the left wing and, given his eye-catching performances in New Zealand, you would imagine Eric Elwood's side will seek to send plenty of ball his way.

For the Blues, Dan Parks is at out-half and the visitors will rely on the Australian to provide the points needed to see off what is certain to a spirited home challenge led by a powerful back-row of John Muldoon, Jonny O'Connor and Ray Ofisa.

Connacht will also be looking for another South Sea Islander to put them on the front foot as inside centre Henry Fa'afili has been impressive in this regard so far this season. There is an experienced look to the home side with the forwards boasting a total of 948 caps between them while the performance of young Eoin Griffin at 13 will be watched with interest as he is regarded as a player of potential.

In Chris Czekaj, Casey Laulala and Tom James, Cardiff have players who can hurt Connacht out wide and centre Dafydd Hewitt is banking on an away win to propel them up the table.

"It's a massively important game for us," said Hewitt. "We are fourth in the table at the moment, so a little bit off where we would like to be. We hope this weekend we can better our position by putting in a good performance and getting a good win."

Connacht have won eight of their last nine games in Galway, the sole defeat coming against the Blues last April -- Cardiff's only win from their last five trips to Ireland -- but Elwood recognises the threat posed by the visitors.

"They have a formidable pack of forwards and we all know their strength behind the set-piece, but we firmly believe if we can focus on our business, particularly at home, we are a match for anyone," said Elwood. "We recognise what they have, but if we can get our business right, we believe we are a strong team at home."

With the fit-again George Naoupu among the replacements alongside Paul O'Donohoe and Miah Nikora, Connacht have impact in the bench and will fancy their chances of making it four wins from seven.

But the visitors have plenty of experience in their own pack with Rhys Thomas, John Yapp, Paul Tito, Maama Molitika and Xavier Rush to face down the Connacht forward onslaught and with Parks directing operations, have the capacity to limit the home side to a losing bonus point.

Verdict: Cardiff Blues

CONNACHT -- G Duffy (capt); F Vainikolo, E Griffin, H Fa'afili, T O'Halloran; N O'Connor, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Ah You; M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon, J O'Connor, R Ofisa. Reps: E Reynecke, R Loughney, D Rogers, D Gannon, G Naoupu, P O'Donohoe, M Nikora, B Tuohy

CARDIFF BLUES -- C Czekaj; A Cuthbert, C Laulala, D Hewitt, T James; D Parks, R Rees; J Yapp, R Thomas, T Filise, M Paterson, P Tito (capt), M Molitika, J Navidi, X Rush. Reps: R Tyrrell, S Hobbs, S Andrews, D Jones, E Jenkins, L Jones, C Sweeney, G Evans.

REF -- N Paterson (Scotland).

Irish Independent

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